Fighting the Winter Blues

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Flickr cc Stefan Lins

I shuffle from the kitchen in the direction of my desk, unshowered and still in my pajamas, a bowl of cold breakfast cereal with blueberries in my right hand and a mug of chamomile tea in my left. I pull out the chair and sit down at my oversized black desk. It’s perfect for art projects, laying out books while researching, or collecting clutter. Today it just has clutter. After settling myself into my chair, I turn on my happy light.

I live in Washington, not too far south of Seattle, so we don’t tend to get a lot of sunshine here. I love all that glorious green but we pay for it through the nose by giving up most of our sunshine visitation rights. And like a lot of Washingtonians, I’ve become rather well acquainted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) over the years. Last February, however, was different. Last year it felt like the smog of depression just wouldn’t lift (save those rare days when the sunshine lit up the sky and made all of us poor sun-deprived folks more than a little gaga). So I bought one of those fake-sun lights and added it to my morning regimen, right before showering and right after pouring almond milk on my favorite cereal.

The light does cut through some of that I-really-could-use-some-vitamin-D depression; it does help me wake up. But what I hadn’t expected was for it to become such a self-preserving, soul-saving morning ritual for me. Here it is a year later and I’m still using it. This February just in need of it as the last. February is one of the hardest SAD months for me; there are no longer any holiday lights to add some warmth but it’s still cold, dark, bleak winter. The winter solstice might mean that we’re halfway out of the dark, but February says, “You’re not out of the dark yet.”

After I turn on my light, I sit there crunching my cereal, and when I’ve fished every last piece out of the white ceramic bowl, a favorite wedding presents from two years ago, I start in on my mug of tea. The pace is slow and rhythmic, like breathing—breathe in, breathe out. I don’t plan my to-do list for the day. I just sit there focusing on my warm tea as I gradually sip it down.

I’m a recovering productivity enthusiast. Relaxation makes me uncomfortable, just-for-fun is hard. What is the purpose? I want to know. How is this being productive? What greater good is being achieved? How is this helping anyone? But there is nothing to achieve, no purpose to accomplish. I let my drive to be productive go, at least a little. And I just sit there greeting the morning, being aware of the now.

Breathe in, breathe out.

The timer indicating that it’s been forty-five minutes hasn’t gone off, and I’m done with breakfast. But I don’t move on to the to-do list. Instead, I journal or collage; play with poetry or read a novel; make a greeting card or compose a letter. I relax into the moment. I stay in the moment. I enjoy the moment. (Or at least I try.)

Breath in, breath out.

Since I was a kid mornings have always been the time of day I’ve seen as having the highest productivity potential—a chance to really get the day started off well. Part of this was my childhood church’s emphasis on morning devotions happening every day (and it literally had to be in the morning). Ideally, you would pray for about fifteen minutes, then read a chapter or two in the Old Testament, followed by a chapter or two in the New Testament, and then if you were really an overachiever (I was) you’d also add in a Psalm and a chunk of Proverbs. And then finish it all off with another prayer (being sure to include the different types of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication).

For me mornings weren’t spiritual, they were regimented. And I didn’t always keep to my rigid schedule, so often times there was a lot of guilt hanging in the morning air. Guilt, like depression, is heavy and sticky. And it’s hard to shake.

Some of this morning legalism was church related, and some of it was just me and my own purpose-driveness. But my forty-five minutes with my little happy light has helped with both. My new morning ritual has made mornings about relaxation rather than achievement; self-care, instead of perfection; spirituality, instead of legalism; fighting the winter blues, instead of fighting demons.

As Lent begins tomorrow I find myself looking forward to Easter, spring, and the summer solstice. I want to wear bright colors and unpack my sandals and run my fingers through the cool, green summer grass. I want a little more sunlight, dammit.

As a quasi-Lutheran, I somewhat observe Lent. I don’t fast. Even though I wasn’t raised in the liturgical tradition so Lent wasn’t a part of my life or faith, I’ve done enough fasting in the name of religion to last a lifetime. So I use it as a season of self-care, a chance find light and warmth in the winter. This year during Lent you’ll find me in the mornings with my happy light, thankful that we’re more than halfway out of the dark.

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In related news, I not only got a pretty awesome inner-child-inspiring card from my friend Stephanie, she also sent me some homemade sunshine. Homemade magic. It’s currently next to my happy light. Go find some light, dear readers. Go make some sunshine. 

Self-Care: Not Stopping for Nobody {Guest Post by Cara Meredith}

It’s Friday, folks, which means that I have the pleasure of introducing you to another one of my favorite bloggers. This week on the blog I’d like you to meet Cara Meredith. Cara and I met because we travel in similar circles within the blogosphere, so I eventually stumbled on her blog. And it instantly became one of my favorites. I love Cara’s writing because it manages to be real, raw, funny, and also gentle. I hope you enjoy this peek into how Cara lives out self-care in her own life.
lightstock_175036_medium_user_3645479.jpgIt happened for the first time on Saturday: I only took time for myself.

I walked down MacArthur to Lakeshore and found myself in line at Starbucks. My stomach wanted nothing more than a white chocolate Americano, my winter drink of choice. I had an entire table to myself and sipped my drink until it grew cold. I read and I wrote and I nibbled at a sugar-crusted berry scone, the other item my stomach almost salivated for while standing in line.

But the scene turned a corner when I left, because that’s when I had a choice to make. Would I stop by the store and buy some milk for my youngest son, along with the other grocery items on the list? Would I pop into the local children’s store and check out the clearance rack to see if anything stuck out to me for either of my boys? Would I walk through the men’s section of the Gap in an effort to find a new shirt for my husband?

One by one the answer came: No. No. No.

I suppose it sounds like a rather ordinary scene but it was nothing less than life changing for me.

For three and a half hours, I chose myself.

For three and a half hours, I ignored the pending needs of my family and I listened to the inner voice that asked me what I needed at that moment.

For three and a half hours, I shoved the shoulds to the side, and I ignored the have-tos and the ought-tos and the you-really-need-to-do-this voices in my head. I only listened for what I needed to hear and do and be in that moment.

And for the first time in a long time, I felt fully, wholly, extraordinarily alive.

I suppose I should explain: my world can be overwhelmingly consumed by the needs of my family. Were you to ask me what I do for a living, I’d give you a muddled and interrupted answer that I’m a mama and a writer and a speaker. You might look at me quizzically and ask if I’m then a stay at home mom, and I’d shudder in response at your label of me. I’d tell you no, I’m so much more than a woman who merely cares for her children, but then I’d wonder why I’m unable to find joy in that label alone, why I need the additional labels of that which brings in a paycheck to feel worthy of your approval.

And I’d begin to get caught up in the shoulds all over again: of how and why I should find joy in the little things, of how and why I should find joy in the core of who I am instead of in the title I sometimes I bear, of how and why I should just ignore the voices around me and take a morning for myself.

Because that’s how this cyclical life of ours goes, I suppose.

No matter what we do during the day, whether we’re married or single, separated or divorced – whether we hold the hand of sticky children or haven’t a thought in the world at the idea of our uterus expanding like an extra large balloon, it’s altogether too easy to get caught up in the world of all we should be doing for everyone and everything else.

So this year, I’m changing my ways.

When my husband and I give one another the gift of a few hours of alone time every weekend – him to escape, me to have a break – I will cherish it and relish in it and I will not fill it with the needs of others.

I refuse to call this time selfish, just as I refuse to ignore my own need for a couple of hours to replenish and feel human once again.

At least that’s my goal in the year to come.

What about you?


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A former high school English teacher, Cara was in full-time ministry for eight years before getting a Masters of Theology (Fuller Seminary). She now juggles her days as a writer, speaker and mama, and is currently finishing her first book. Cara enjoys reading, the great outdoors and any excuse to eat chips and guacamole. A Seven on the Enneagram, she can’t help but find Beauty in the most unlikely of places. She and her husband, the HBH (Hot Black Husband) live in Oakland, California with their two young sons. She blogs regularly carameredith.com, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Kelsey’s Recommendation: I often find Cara’s posts encouraging and reflective, but she can be pretty damn funny, too. This post, 82 Ways to Succeed at Costco Without Really Trying, is a fantastic example of that.

Recommended Reads: What I Read Since I Can’t Read the Bible

It was hard to pick which books to share because February is an interesting month. It’s the Love Month. It’s when all the lovey-dovey cards, heart-shaped chocolates, tacky and sexy lingerie, sidewalk-chalk-flavored candy, and cheesy-cute stuffed animals have an entire grocery store aisle all to themselves. But it’s also the beginning of Lent, which is a more serious, introspective, faith-focused season for the faith-communities and individuals who observe it.

I was torn between whether or not to share a few favorite romance novels or more Lent-appropriate works. And I decided that, instead, I’d recommend two books that are a part of my own self-care time (which relates to love and spirituality, or at least it does for me).

For years the quiet of the mornings was my “quiet time with God” or “daily devotions.” My mornings were severely regimented and there was often a lot of guilt hanging in the morning air, but there was beauty and introspection, too. However, thanks to my serious case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome I have a complex relationship with the Bible these days, so we don’t spend our mornings together. And for a while it felt like there was a hole in my day. Something was missing, that time to reflect. These books have helped fill that hole; they inspire me, remind me what’s truly important, make me feel less alone, and leave me feeling more grounded for spending a morning with them. They’re also beautiful. And that’s a good reason just right there.

1. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is my personal patron saint, and I feel like her books were the first spiritual life rafts that my fingers, out of sheer luck, managed to grab. She was the very first person to give me a glimpse of the reality that Christianity could taste differently than the particular flavor that I’d been raised with.

She introduce me to freedom. She introduce me to hope. She showed me that it was okay to be honest, even about hard things and the feelings you weren’t “supposed to” have. She showed me that I could be snarky and spiritual at the same time. She made me laugh out loud and she told me it was okay to grieve and that it was okay to take care of myself. She made me feel less broken, and more just messy. And that messiness was okay.

When I saw Lamott speak last year she described Small Victories as her “best of album” (but there are still some new essay additions). And I think that’s the perfect way of describing it.

It was hard to decide which quotes to share with you since there are so many sticky notes in my copy, but this is one that resonated the most deeply with me.

 I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me, too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. And they said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare, and then my salvation. [p. 22]

Crimes against the innocent — me. Within the pages of her book I feel welcomed, safe. And on the next page she continues:

This welcome towards myself took adjustment, a rebalancing of my soul. There had been so much energy thrown into performance, achievement, and disguise. [p. 23]

A rebalancing of my soul. That is exactly where I’m at.

I read through this slowly, one essay a morning, the way I used to read through daily devotionals. And I’m planning on rereading it during Lent (a time in the Christian year that I have reimagined, reclaimed for myself as a time of more focused, more intentional self-care).

2. Dream Work by Mary Oliver.

Poetry, like music or ice cream flavors, really comes down to personal taste. But I’m madly, deeply in love with Mary Oliver’s words. (I’m also dead jealous.) This is what I’m currently reading through in the mornings, just a poem or two at a time. I feel like it helps my mornings to be reflective, peaceful, and spiritual. And perhaps most importantly of all, it’s a time of self-care.

Although, Oliver’s poems certainly touch on a wide variety of topics and emotions I feel like this would be the perfect book to give to anyone who said they didn’t like poetry because it’s always sad.

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I think The Journey might be my favorite of her poems that I’ve read so far. Sometimes, when I read poems like this one, I feel as if she’s writing directly to all of us who have made or are making the long, hard journey out of religious fundamentalism; those of us who grew up believing for so long that we were responsible for the entire world — every person, every soul. Here’s a small excerpt:

as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save the only life you could save.

Oliver’s poems aren’t religious-y, I’m not honestly sure that she’s even religious herself, but I found this section of Morning Poem beautiful.

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

If you want something reflective and beautiful to read that will help care for your soul, these are the books. (Or at least they are for me.)

What books feed your soul? And my fellow Religious Trauma survivors who also can’t read their Holy Book of Origin, what do you read now that’s adding light and life to your life?

Self-Care: Rebellious {Guest Post by J. Nicole Morgan}

Welcome! This Friday in the self-care series I’m happy to introduce you all to J. Nicole Morgan. Nicole is a talented writer and a brave soul (taking on important issues like fat-shaming and stereotypes is not for the faint of heart, especially in the Land of Internet Trolls).

On a personal note, I appreciate how in this piece Nicole defines advocating for your own needs as self-care. As someone with peanut anaphylaxis (read more about it here), advocating for my own needs has to be a regular part of my life, whether I like it or not. It’s hard. It’s embarrassing. It’s scary. This piece helped me see how advocating for my own needs — from teaching friends to use my Epi-Pen to asking if we could meet at a safer location — are acts of self-care.

Enjoy. And leave Nicole a comment letting her know what you got out of her piece.

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On a walk through Garden of the Gods in Colorado — something that at one point in my life I would have said fat people didn’t do, because the world tells us that you need to be thin before you can enjoy nature.

 

I live in a body that most of our culture calls wrong. I am bombarded, especially during this time between New Year’s Resolutions and the coming beach season, with messages on how to fix my body. The world gives me endless tips for how to melt, mold, and make my body into something deemed acceptable.

I am told that the “self-care” my body needs is diets, discipline, and deprivation. These things, if I endure the pain, will ultimately give me some prize. No one bothers to ask first about my self-discipline, or my nutrition, or my ability to push through hard things. I have a body that says I am bad at these things and that is as far as they can see.

So in this context, in this world, true self-care becomes a radical, rebellious act.

There are a few different things I do in the name of self-care to embrace the fat body I have rather than the body that the media tells me I should have. One thing in particular is the basis for giving myself the freedom to care for myself: I call myself fat. I’ve done it for almost a decade now and it rolls of my tongue as easily as I name my hair color. I accept the body that I have.

About five years into calling myself fat I went to one of those trampoline gyms with a group from work. You could literally bounce off the floors and walls. A few years before that, I wouldn’t have participated – it just seemed like trampoline jumping was something athletic people did, not fat people. But I jumped with joy and screamed and laughed as I fell and bounced. I also jumped into the big pit of foam they have and got miserably stuck. The people I was with jumped in to help me out and aside from my embarassed red face, all was well. I’m glad I did it though, I’m glad I jumped into the pit of foam and I’m glad I jumped around on the trampolines.

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed something, as I’ve become more comfortable calling myself “fat,” I’ve become more comfortable advocating for my needs. I had a part time job for a few months at a store where occasionally I’d need to enter the walk-in freezer to get stock. The temperature inside freezes your nose hair after a minute or two. The store provided hats and gloves, coats and insulated pants for the employees. The largest of the coats would go on me but not zip. There wasn’t even a hope for the pants. So, I told my boss that in order to for me to do anything related to the walk-in freezer, they’d need to provide appropriate safety gear. It was well received, they never did get larger coats and pants, but they were able to assign the work-load so that I didn’t have to enter the freezer. This is self-care, advocating for my rights rather than beating myself up and saying that I needed to change my body in order to fit into the existing framework. In this case, the existing sizes of coats in the store.

Whether it’s asking for a seat belt extender on a plane or changing tables at a restaurant, speaking up for what your body needs to be safe and comfortable is acceptable, necessary self-care. I am allowed to live life in the body that I have. I am allowed to ask for accommodations if they are needed.

Accepting that my body is a certain size and shape was the first step in getting me to the point where I could care for the body I have instead of the body that the world tells me I should have. Accepting the body that I have means that I do my best to let my body experience life to the fullest rather than sentence it to a life of squeezing into places too small or sitting out of activities.


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J. Nicole Morgan writes about bodies, theology, and community at jnicolemorgan.com. Her work has appeared in PRISM Magazine and on Christianity Today. Nicole loves thrift shopping, sewing, and honing her cool aunt skills.

Kelsey Recommendation: One of my favorite pieces by Nicole is one that she recently had published on Christianity Today‘s site called, God Loves My Fat Body As It Is. In it she writes: “But no one needs a war waged on their body, and it’s certainly not holy.”

Side B: Faith Flipped Over

The narrator reading from the bible with his deep man-voice is what I fell asleep to every night. Even when a friend would be over for a sleepover. I’d ask, “Mind if we listen to the bible before bed?” (Thinking back on this makes me realize how shocking it is that I had any friends to ask this question to.)

I’d listen to Side A until I had practically worn out the ribbon. Eventually I would know Side A so well that when I pushed pause to go to the bathroom I’d be able to recite the next few verses “word perfect,” as they say in church, from memory. And that would be when I’d know it was finally time to flip over to Side B. (I feel like it is important at this moment to note that this was not something I was instructed or even encouraged to do by anyone; this was my own personal religious fanaticism and nerdiness all on its own. And yet another reason to marvel at the fact that I had any friends.)

Flipping the tape over to Side B. There was something exciting about this. I would’ve become so familiar with the first few chapters in the Gospel of Matthew that I’d sometimes talk along with the narrator as I waited to fall asleep. It was familiar, comforting. When I flipped the tape over it lost the homey feeling; it was no longer as comforting but it was a little exciting to find out what happened next.

Side B. The unknown. The less familiar. The adventure. But, yet, still part of the same story. Side B meant that you’d already made a journey. You weren’t just starting off anymore; you’d already started, and now you were halfway through.

In a way I feel like my journey of faith has reached Side B. I was so familiar with my faith. So familiar with the way I did things and what I was expected to believe and feel that I could quote along word perfect as I drifted off to sleep.

On Sundays and Wednesdays, worship would begin with the worship band singing a Michael W. Smith praise song as we followed along on the Power Point (which occasionally had typos), bibles placed on our chairs like a seat-saver. When the worship would start I’d feel my faith.

“You know your faith is real because you’ve felt it,” I was told. And I’d repeat those words to myself, not that I was in need of reassuring. I’d felt my faith. I’d cried while singing Blessed be Your Name more times that I could probably count. I’d felt like I’d reached a state of heavenly bliss while in the middle of singing a praise song. When I’d hear people say that they worried Heaven would be boring, I’d think they just didn’t understand; they must never have felt that close to God. It was an emotional mountain top experience. It was a religious high. It was the closest thing to an orgasm any of us True Love Waits teens would be experiencing in high school. It was our faith. And it felt so real.

Sometimes I felt peace, the way people describe meditation. Sometimes I felt loved and joyous. Other times it felt like I was fighting—fighting through the tears, fighting through the pain to still praise God’s name; it felt like resilience and hope and surrender. It felt real.

Feeling God was the norm. Sure, sometimes I’d worry because I’d feel as if my prayers might just be bouncing off the ceiling. I worried because I didn’t feel as close to God. And to these sorts of worries pastors would say, “If you realize you’re not as close to God as you used to, it wasn’t God who moved.” So I’d try to scoot back over to His corner.

My interactions with God felt like they were tactile. It was like there was a spiritual texture or temperature that I could hone into. When I read the bible I felt peace. I felt encouraged. I felt closer to God the way you feel closer to a friend when you get off the phone.

I felt so many things back then. I felt called to missions. I felt like God was going to use me in great ways. I felt like I was going to help so many people. I felt like I was going to bring people to Christ, save souls, and feed the hungry. I believed it like it was a promise, because I felt it.

But now I can see that so much of it, for me, was emotionalism. I can see how often my uniquely-toxic church misused and manipulated the emotions of the congregation, and specifically the youth, in order to motivate us. It was toxic. It was damaging. And I got hurt.

Side A begins with a little girl listening to the Bible on tape every night as she falls asleep and, when she needed a little more comfort, she’d listen to Sleep Sound in Jesus, the lullabies she’d heard from the time she was a baby. She’d lie in her bed in the dark, Jesus-shaped nightlight shining, and pray a goodnight prayer to God. Goodnight, she’d whisper to the Divine that felt so close, so familiar that she could almost touch Him.

Believing that He wasn’t right there would have been as hard as believing that she didn’t have a heart or lungs. Not only had she learned about her heart and lungs, she could feel them. Thump. Thump. Thump. Breath in, breath out. And so it was with her faith.

But then the tape sort of stops. The comforting story that’d been on repeat ends abruptly. It’s time to flip over the tape. It’s time for the unknown awaiting on Side B.

That’s where I’m living. I’m living on Side B. I don’t feel my faith anymore. And after having my emotions used against me, I really prefer it this way.

My spirituality has shifted and my faith has flipped over. I find myself pondering existential-crisis-inducing questions now like, “What am I exactly now? Where do I fit? And do I even want to ‘fit’ somewhere?”

But despite the faith-flip, despite the existentialing, Christianity is my cultural heritage. It’s my spiritual country of origin, so despite our complex and messy history together it’s still a part of how I see myself and the world. Reinventing myself and my spirituality means playing with the Christian symbols that I was raised on that are still so powerful, beautiful to me.

I’m finding comfort in some of the older Christian traditions, traditions that I wasn’t raised with so they’re foreign enough to not be trigger-y but similar enough to feel homey. But they’re not emotion-based. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t fill me with emotions. I feel only a glimmer of comfort. This isn’t the rushing, pulsing emotions of my past; it’s not even as strong of emotions as I feel when I watch the sunset or listen to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. For some, being able to express themselves emotionally within their faith community is an important part of their spiritual expression; for me, the lack of emotions feels quieter, safer.

What’s on this side of the tape? Hopefully spiritual safety and healing. Wholeness. Exploration.

And then there’s also the great, wild unknown that both terrifies and intrigues me. The void. The beautiful void. That space where all the Answers and Truth used to be. There’s I-don’t-knows where there used to be pat-answers, religious clichés, and verses memorized in AWANA. It seems to go on forever. It’s vast. The amount that I don’t know is unmeasurable. And for a girl who used to believe she had all the answers, who used to feel she had all the answers, it was at first terrifying. But now there’s a mystery to life that never existed before.

Side B is a magnificent mystery. Side B is a whole new lease on life. Side B is the rest of my story.